J. Robert Deans may be most familiar to the local community as a comic book store manager, but he's been working on a webcomic, and now has launched a Kickstarter campaign for a cartoony children's book about a cow in space. In the middle of that fundraising, he took the time to answer my usual questions.
What type of comic work or cartooning do you do?
Around the time my daughter was born, I started working in a comic shop in Springfield, the former NOVA Comics. After that closed, I worked for Game On Comics in Vienna. I’ve had a web comic for almost three years now, a weekly single-panel gag comic called “Crass Fed Comics,” which is mostly jokes and puns in cartoon form. I occasionally post other random pieces of art as well, larger pieces, longer comics, or stuff that doesn’t fit the theme. Last year I added a new comic, the monthly (soon to be bi-monthly) comic strip “The Adventures of Surf and Turf,” which features a cow and penguin hanging out on a farm…with puns. Lots of puns. Last year after being laid off from Game On, I had an idea based on a silly doodle I had done some time earlier, and that quickly became a picture book for kids, which has exploded into half a dozen book ideas, and “Crass Fed Kids” was born. The first book, Moo Thousand and Pun, is now being Kickstarted. Subsequent books may be as well, depending on the success of the first, which features a cow in space.
How do you do it? Traditional pen and ink, computer or a combination?
I do have a tablet with the Manga Studio program on it. I use that to make corrections and add colors to art when necessary. (Moo Thousand was done this way, with letters also added digitally.) Most of the Crass Fed cartoons are black and white line art, but when I color I use technology. For the most part, I use pen and ink. I like drawing digitally, and I keep experimenting…but nothing can replace a pencil and a sheet of Bristol board.
When (within a decade is fine) and where were you born?
I was born in the early 1970s, in South Carolina. Luckily, I escaped.
Why are you in Washington now? What neighborhood or area do you live in?
When I was moving to go to college after a few years of working full time, my best friend tried to hook me up on a blind date with her friend. That Christmas, said friend sent me a card with her picture in it. A couple of weeks later we went on that date, and haven’t looked back. After I graduated I moved up here to the Springfield area to be with her. She’s a native to the area.
What is your training and/or education in cartooning?
None. And, to be honest, it shows. I have been drawing and doodling all my life, but I never took any formal classes. The past few years have been filled with several family tragedies, and drawing was an outlet to keep myself distracted. My position as a comics retailer afforded me many friends in the industry that have been very generous with their time and advice, and I have taken advantage of that.
Who are your influences?
Oy. A ton. It may not show up in my work at all, but artists like Will Eisner, Wally Wood, Jack Kirby, John Romita Sr, Frank Robbins, Alex Toth, Paul Reinman, Martin Nodell, Carmine Infantino, Charles Schulz, they were all over the books I read as a child. And many more, to be sure.
Creators that could be considered contemporary to me would include Dave Stevens, Stan Sakai, Chris Samnee, Gabriel Hardman, Dave McDonald, Paul Smith, Frank Cho, Evan Shaner, Roger Langridge, Howard Chaykin, Kevin Maguire, George Perez…too many to really count. The late Mike Parobeck and Mike Wieringo remain favorites. And that doesn’t even include the writers.
The biggest outside influence on my work today is Stephan Pastis, the creator of “Pearls Before Swine,” who I am pretty sure is my spirit animal.
I have also amassed a wonderful core of friends who help me almost daily with their encouragement, advice, and talent, and make my life that much more enjoyable: Jamie Cosley, Tara O’Connor, Matt Wieringo, Drew Moss, Bob Frantz, Eryk Donovan, Hoyt Silva, Erica Schultz, and Steve Conley.
Clearly, my wife and daughter (who at times is a collaborator) are my biggest influences. I really just do what I do for them. The fact that others have enjoyed the result is gravy, and something I am always thankful for. I also have to acknowledge Francesco Francavilla and his wife Lisa, who was the final push for me to start Crass Fed, with an almost literal kick to the tuckus and a “go do it, ya dummy!”
If you could, what in your career would you do-over or change?
Start younger. A lot younger. I’m at an age when arthritis and vision problems set in (and they are). Plus, I would have started taking classes to improve my craft that much earlier.
Probably my penguin avatar. I drew it while I was in high school, and when I go to shows, once I tell folks I’m “that penguin guy,” they recognize me. Next would probably be the cows, which I draw for my daughter. Her favorite toy is a stuffed cow she has had since birth, and that cow is the star of Moo Thousand.
What work are you most proud of?
There are a couple of individual cartoons from Crass Fed or Surf and Turf that I am proud of, but the biggest thing is the book. One friend, when I asked him to read a draft after the art had been finished, said that everyone says they write, but few actually finish a book. He said no matter what the reaction, I should take pride in my producing a complete work…and I do. I like how it turned out, people I don’t know have enjoyed it, and have asked for more. That’s… a nice feeling.
I would like to try my hand at writing a traditional cape and cowl comic. That would be a challenge, to be sure. I see what writers go through to keep readers captivated month in, month out, and it’s daunting and admirable. For some reason, I would like to try that.
Barring that, I have ideas for several other books in the Crass Fed Kids line, and hopefully this first one will be successful enough to allow me to make more.
What do you do when you're in a rut or have writer's block?
This may fall in to the category of “TMI,” but I jump in the shower. Every time I’ve had an idea that has really worked, like Moo Thousand, that lightbulb has gone off while I’m in the shower. After that, I put on another pot of coffee and get to work.
What do you think will be the future of your field?
Honestly, once we get past all of this histrionic crap about new female and minority creators and have real representation and equality at the creative level, comics will blossom. Folks still have a bizarre preconception about comics and comic shops, and the only thing that will get us past that is diversity. Speaking as a former retailer, every new comic book movie does nothing to boost comic sales. In almost ten years of selling comics in which there were some 20 comic-book-based blockbusters, I can count on one hand the number of new readers that came in to the shop because they saw one of those movies.
What really got people into the shop where they may not have thought of comics before were books like March by John Lewis. Or Bone by Jeff Smith. Or Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona. Books that feature lead characters that aren’t white dudes in tights. While there isn’t anything wrong with white dudes in tights, there are so many more worlds to explore that we need to open up the gates to everyone who has a story to tell… and let them tell them. Encourage them. Inspire them. Get them started with a pencil and a dream and support to let them tell their story. When we can really do that with everyone, the future will be as rich and as amazing as we can dream it to be.
What local cons do you attend? The Small Press Expo, Intervention, or others? Any comments about attending them?
We regularly attend Heroes in Charlotte, Baltimore Comic Con, and SPX. We also went to AwesomeCon last year. If all goes well with the Kickstarter, this year will be our first exhibiting, starting with AwesomeCon. We will also have tables at Heroes, and are in the queue for a table at SPX. Baltimore is up in the air this year (because of a family scheduling conflict).
I have written about attending conventions for my blog, because they are such different animals for exhibitors than attendees. The cost of attending a show can be pretty big, especially if the show isn’t local. Admission, hotels, meals, travel, all of that adds up before you even buy your first piece of art or your first book. When you exhibit, that costs goes up exponentially with table fees, travel and shipping all of the materials needed to exhibit…it’s an expensive undertaking just in hopes that a few folks stop at your table and check out your work. It’s exhausting, and most creators hope they can just break even. It’s a little easier for artists because they can always sell commissions, but writers have to be able to sell their story, which is a lot harder in a convention setting where the visual side of the medium is king.
The advice I give everyone about attending is go to have fun. Even I have attended a show (Heroes, the first time), just to meet a particular creator (Kelly Sue DeConnick). In addition to that, use the time to explore other creators you don’t know. Browse the artist alley. Check out folks sharing tables. Their budget is small, and their hopes large. A simple $5 purchase at their tables could be just the encouragement they need to keep creating. Who knows… a comic bought on a whim at a table could mean you were one of the first people to discover the next big thing in comics. I call it “Try 5” and have written more about the idea on my blog at icrvn.com/blog/?p=745
What's your favorite thing about DC?
I met my wife here. The food’s pretty good too.
The commuting. Always, the commuting.
What monument or museum do like to take visitors to?
I actually let my wife handle that. Being the native, she is much better at figuring out logistics and such when those visits are needed. Aside from the Library of Congress where my wife works, Air and Space is usually the big hit, though. And Natural History. Old books, space, and dinosaurs rule, I suppose.
How about a favorite local restaurant?
How about a favorite local restaurant?
I used to manage a restaurant, nothing at all fancy, and my wife is finishing up her first cookbook, so we tend to cook most of the time. But, if friends are in town it’s hard to top any of Jose Andres’ options. Jaleo is probably the favorite. Or one of a small handful of good Pho places. Hard to go wrong with Pho, or my favorite, Bibimbap.
Do you have a website or blog?
Do you have a website or blog?
Indeed. My home site, which has been running since ’97, is icrvn.com – from there you can get to my blog (icrvn.com/blog), or any of my webcomics (all hosted at crassfed.com), plus a few other sites like my wife’s recipe blog, or other art, such as my daughter’s art (kidletkorner.com). I am also on twitter (@jrobertdeans). I don’t have a public page for Facebook, but when I remember to, comics are also cross-posted on the Crass Fed Comic page on Facebook.